Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Stage Royalty

The Royal Family
Written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber
Directed by Doug Hughes
Starring Gasteyer, John Glover, Rosemary Harris, Jan Maxwell, Larry Pine, Tony Roberts, Reg Rogers, Freddy Arsenault, Kelli Barrett, Carolyn Stefanie Clay, Rufus Collins, David Greenspan, Henny Russell

Performances September 15-December 13, 2009
Friedman Theater, 252 West 47th Street

No one writes plays like The Royal Family, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1929 comedy about three generations of a theatrical family a la the Barrymores, any more, which is both blessing and curse. This three-act comedy (with two intermissions!) has an undeniable flair for presenting the rarefied airs of its narcissistic eccentrics at the same time as it relies on routine jokes and dated allusions to long-ago acting royalty. Still, it has meaty comic roles and a good-natured atmosphere—which is nothing to sneeze at.

Kaufman and Ferber’s plot revolves around Fanny, widowed matriarch of the Cavendish clan, who insists on preparing for an upcoming tour even though she was recently ill; Fanny’s overemotional daughter Julie, the most acclaimed actress of her generation, who still wows ‘em on Broadway but considers jettisoning it all for an old flame, millionaire industrialist Gilbert; Fanny’s volatile son, Tony, who leapt at bigger paydays as a movie star but who’s on the lam in their after punching a noted movie director and leaving the set; and Fanny’s practical granddaughter (and Julie’s daughter) Gwen, who prefers romance with her beau Perry to following in her illustrious family’s footsteps.

No lost classic, The Royal Family is a bumpy but shrewdly observed comic portrait worth reviving, and the Manhattan Theater Club’s production does it (largely) right. On John Lee Beatty’s gorgeous two-tiered set of the Cavendish family’s Park Avenue apartment—stuffed with paintings, theater posters, other bric-a-brac and a most convenient staircase and balcony—the endless comings and goings of the Cavendishes are shown in all their haughty splendor.

Director Doug Hughes (also helming Oleanna on Broadway) keeps the comic pace brisk without turning it into knockabout farce by letting the comedy breathe; the script itself is to blame for the occasional lull. Hughes has also populated the cast with several of New York’s finest stage actors in key roles.

Rosemary Harris plays Fanny with all the regal bearing a theater legend requires, and Jan Maxwell’s Julie is both intelligently thought out and deliriously actressy. Reg Rogers’ Tony is the play’s juiciest role, and the actor sinks his teeth into it with gusto. Tony Roberts (showing no ill effects of his recent onstage mishap) makes manager Oscar Wolfe, the Cavendishes’ trusted confidante, into an oasis of sanity amid the others’ hyperactivity.

Kelli Barrett is a delightful Gwen, John Glover a tartly funny Herbert, the brother who hopes to ride sister Julie’s coattails to another hit show, and Larry Pine a relatively normal Gilbert (at least in this crowd). The biggest debits in the large cast are Ana Gasteyer’s unfortunate mugging as Herbert’s thin-skinned (and talentless) wife Kitty; David Greenspan’s playing every straight line of Jo the butler for unneeded yucks; and Freddy Arsenault’s stolid Perry (Gwen’s betrothed), out of place in more ways than one.
originally posted on timessquare.com

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